Road conditions vary dramatically in Rattanakiri; while the road to Yeak Laom lake, and on the Vietnam border is now surfaced, others remain in poor shape. If you’re heading out alone it’s worth telling someone at your hotel or guesthouse about your route, as punctures and breakdowns do happen. Hiring a moto in Banlung, though a little pricier than usual, at $15 per day, is worthwhile as the drivers not only know their way around the province, but are adept at negotiating the rough roads; many also speak some English and can give you a bit of local background too. Four-wheel drives with driver can be hired via guesthouses and hotels, where you can also ask about hiring a local guide. The only scheduled local transport is the bone-shaker of a bus that leaves Banlung market in the early morning for Voen Sai (2000 riel).
Trekking is the most popular activity in Rattanakiri; every guesthouse will be keen to sell you a trek and there seem to be tour operators on every corner. Treks usually involve a bamboo-raft ride down the river, a bit of a walk and an overnight in a hammock; inclusive rates are around $30 per person per day for two people or $20 per person for four. But on these you’ll scarcely get into the forest. Far better are the organized treks arranged by the Eco tourism Information Office of the Virachey National Park Headquarters (t 075/974013, wwww.viracheyecotourism.blogspot.com), located in the Ministry of Forest compound three blocks north of the post office, 2km from the centre. This is the only outfit that actually treks in the park area; regardless of what other operators may tell you they only trek in the outskirts. On offer is a range of treks from two to eight days; costs are inclusive of park entry fee, transport, food, indigenous guide and contributions to a community project. Their most popular trip is the O’Lapeung River Valley (three day/two night) trek, which includes walking on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, kayaking down the river and a homestay. Transport costs mean that treks can be very expensive for solo travellers (up to $150); getting a group together (maximum of eight) will reduce the cost dramatically (to around $60–70 per person for three days).
The best of the private operators are The Dutch Couple (t017/571682, wwww.EcotourismCambodia.info); they help support the indigenous communities where they trek and claim not to use the same trails each time.
The problem, as ever, is that trekking can never be eco-friendly; contact with Westerners, and indeed with Khmers, and loss of their land is changing the way the chunchiet live forever.
Yeak Laom lake
Yeak Laom lake
Surrounded by unspoilt forest, the clear turquoise waters of Yeak Laom lake (daily dawn–dusk; 4000 riel), 800m across and up to 50m deep, are warm and inviting. There are wooden platforms for bathing, and the three-kilometre track around the lake perimeter makes for a tranquil little hike. The setting is mesmerizing: stands of bamboo rim the lake, lush ferns sprout from fallen trees, the reflections of clouds skim across the lake’s surface, and in the late afternoon an ethereal mist can be seen rising off the water. It’s no wonder that visitors often make several return trips.
The area is regarded as sacred by the Tampoun, who manage it for the benefit of their community, and chunchiet culture is showcased at the Cultural and Environment Centre, 300m anticlockwise round the lake from the entrance steps, which has different styles of khapa, textiles, ceramics and other everyday paraphernalia (although unfortunately the room is dimly lit). The small craft stall next door sells locally produced textiles, the money from sales going directly to the community.
To reach Yeak Laom, head east out of Banlung, turn south east at the Hill Tribe Monument; dropping down the hill you reach the lake after 1.5km. The round trip by moto costs around $5, including waiting time. Watch out for your stuff – there have been thefts from bags left on the bank while visitors are swimming.
If gardens are your thing, Thida Phnom Resort (1000 riel) is a formal garden set on the hillside just northeast of Yeak Laom lake – after the rains the hill is afire with blossom. A couple of lame, and fairly tame, Sarus cranes wander in and out of the shrubs and hedges, while chunchiet women do their weaving near-by; in a shed near the ticket booth an enormous tree root has been intricately carved with images of birds and beasts of the forest. To reach the gardens, which purport to be the biggest (and possibly only) in Cambodia, turn east just before entering Yeak Laom protected area; the turning to the gardens is about 500m up the road.
There are a few modest but picturesque waterfalls within easy reach of Banlung. The falls at Chha Ong (2000 riel) are the largest, the river flowing through lush jungle before plunging 30m into a gorge. The pool at the base is deep enough to swim in, and daring souls can climb onto a ledge behind the curtain of water. To reach the falls, head 2km west on National Route 78 to the signposted junction, then turn right (northwest) and continue 6km to the falls.
If you turn left (south) at the junction, the road runs through rubber plantations and past a rubber factory before heading downhill to a small bridge just beyond a line of food stalls and karaoke joints about 4km from the main road. Just before the bridge, a small path to the right leads into a bamboo-clad valley and down to the Ka Chhang falls, just 10m high, with a pool for taking a dip.
To get to Katieng falls, head back towards town and take the first narrow road on the left leading up a slope, then continue for about 4km until you reach a small river. Follow the path to the right on the opposite side of the river to reach the falls. Around here there’s the opportunity for an elephant ride for about $10–15 per hour, but it’s easier to make arrangements through your hotel or guesthouse. However, for a more authentic elephant-back excursion you’re better off in Mondulkiri.